Russia rebuffed calls for a no-fly zone over Syria as Saudi clerics and Islamist rebels urged for retaliation against its extended bombing campaign that has targeted militant groups in the Arab country.
Officials from Moscow ruled out sending troops to take part in ground operations in Syria, a day after the head of the Russian parliament’s defense committee said volunteers could go to fight, including some who took part in the conflict in Ukraine. NATO meanwhile said Russian incursions into Turkish airspace in recent days looked deliberate.
A no-fly zone would breach Syrian sovereignty and “isn’t based on the UN Charter and international law,” Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, who is Russia’s special presidential envoy to the Middle East, said in an interview published Tuesday by the Interfax news service. “Of course, we are against this. You need to respect the sovereignty of countries.”
Russia began its air campaign last week to bomb Islamic State and other jihadist groups in Syria, its first foray outside the former Soviet Union in more than three decades. Syria’s opposition groups, including Islamist rebels, and anti-Russia fighters with Islamic State have criticized the move, with many likening its intervention in Syria to the Soviet Union’s involvement in Afghanistan that began in 1979.
Russian MotivesThe Kremlin said last week its campaign was designed to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is also backed by Shiite-dominated Iran in the fight against predominantly Sunni groups. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Tuesday the targets of the strikes are "the terrorist and extremist groups that are in Syria and attacking the armed forces and peaceful cities of this country.”
"A political settlement is the ultimate goal of all Russia’s actions," Peskov told reporters on a conference call.
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war through activists, said recent violence in Hama, Homs, Aleppo and Idlib suggest the Russian airstrikes are helping Assad retake areas and consolidate others. They are also allowing Syrian government forces to relieve strategic besieged locations and cut off rebels from others in different provinces, Rami Abdurrahman, the observatory’s head, said by phone.
Call to ArmsAssad controls about a quarter of Syria and 60 percent of the population, according to Abdurrahman. About 45 percent of the country is under Islamic State militants and the rest is controlled by Kurds, various rebels and jihadists, he said.
As world powers get drawn deeper into the conflict, more than 50 Saudi clerics called on Syrian rebels and Muslim countries on Monday to support a jihad against Syria’s government and its allies.
"This is a real war on Sunnis, their countries and their identities," said the statement. It urged the rebels to join a "jihad against the enemy of God and your enemy and Muslims will back you every way they can."
More than 40 insurgent groups on Monday called “Russia’s military aggression in Syria a flagrant occupation" that is a "legitimate target." Their statement said: “The coming war is one that aims to liberate our land from two occupying forces: Iranian and Russian.”
Diplomatic EffortRussian President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention overshadowed a recent diplomatic flurry to seek a solution to the four-year civil war. While NATO is pressuring the government in Moscow to coordinate efforts to attack Islamic State, Russian politicians rejected any notion of a protracted involvement in Syria.
Russia is “neither planning to, nor will participate in any ground operations,” Valentina Matviyenko, speaker of Russia’s upper house of parliament, said at talks in Amman on Tuesday with her Jordanian counterpart Abdur-Rauf Rawabdeh, Interfax reported. “We will not be dragged into the resolution of the international Syrian crisis for long.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova added that Russia will never repeat its Afghan experience in Syria.
For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan pressed for the introduction of a no-fly zone over a safe area that would be created in Syria for refugees fleeing the fighting during talks with European Union leaders on Monday. Turkey, NATO’s largest military force after the U.S., also vowed to protect its borders after a Russian fighter jet that violated its airspace was confronted by two Turkish aircraft on Oct. 3.
Commanders of Russia’s Air Group in Syria have “taken necessary measures to prevent such occurrences,” and have sent “relevant clarifications” to Turkey, the Defense Ministry in Moscow said on Twitter on Monday.
Russian ProvocationNATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg condemned the Russian intrusion into Turkey’s airspace and on Tuesday called it deliberate provocation.
“This doesn’t look like an accident, the violation lasted for a long time compared to previous violations of airspace,” Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels. He called on Russia to stop targeting civilians and Syria’s legitimate opposition, and to avoid coming into conflict with U.S.-led forces fighting Islamic State in Syria.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem told Al Mayadeen TV on Monday he was sure of Russian victory in the fight against terrorist groups.
“Without a doubt, Russia will win this race,” al-Muallem said, according to state-run SANA news agency. “I have no doubt at all, and the reason behind that is practical and simple: it’s because Russia is coordinating with the Syrian Arab Army, which is the only force in Syria that is confronting terrorism.”